Study: Four Northeast Ohio Companies Among Top 100 Polluters Nationwide

A map from the Breath to the People study, commissioned by United Church of Christ, shows locations of some of the eight Ohio companies on the list that released high volumes of toxic fumes in 2018.
A map from the Breath to the People study, commissioned by United Church of Christ, shows locations of some of the eight Ohio companies on the list that released high volumes of toxic fumes in 2018. [Breath to the People Study]
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Updated: 4:01 p.m., Wedensday, Feb. 26, 2020

Several Northeast Ohio companies are among the worst 100 industrial facilities in the country emitting toxic fumes in heavily populated areas, according to a report released Wednesday. Emissions include chromium, nickel, and copper, which are considered hazardous for human health by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  

The Breath to the People study analyzed self-reported EPA air pollution data from more than 15,000 facilities nationwide and ranked the top 100 of them based on their proximity to people and the toxicity of the fumes released.

Those 100 facilities are responsible for more than a third of the toxic air emissions reported in 2018, according to the report.

The United Church of Christ, which is headquartered in Cleveland, asked an Environmental Protection Agency watchdog group, Environmental Integrity Project, to conduct the study.

Minister for Environmental Justice Reverend Brooks Berndt said the church wanted to look into how vulnerable populations, specifically children under 5, are impacted by toxic air quality.

“These heavy metals are making their way into the air. They’re being breathed in by children,” Berndt said. “These things are a real concern.”

BASF Corp. in Elyria ranked 11th on the “Toxic 100 List,” which reported emitting 31.8 of toxicity-weighted tons of air pollution in 2018. More than 7,300 people live within one mile of this facility, eight percent of them under the age of 5.

In addition to children, the report looks at how air pollution affects impoverished communities and minority populations near the 100 plants. For example, MPC Plating — No. 68 on the list — is located in Hough, where 91 percent of the population is black or Hispanic. MPC Plating reported releasing 6.4 million toxicity-weighted tons in 2018.

“Cleveland suffers from some of the highest lead poisoning rates in the country, so this community that’s already suffering from that injustice, now we discover has this further injustice of these heavy metals being pumped over in the air to their neighborhood,” Berndt said.

Neither BASF Corp. nor MPC Plating did not respond immediately to a request for comment. 

But Courtney Bernhardt, research director at Environmental Integrity Project and lead author of the study, said the facilities should be evaluated for environmental injustices on a case-by-case basis.

“It’s not necessarily indicative of a large environmental justice problem around all of these plants, but we did find that certain plants have more vulnerable populations living around them in general,” Bernhardt said.

Case Western Reserve University environmental researcher Peter Whiting said the study looks credible, but there are some variables it doesn’t account for.

“There are factors to consider that weren’t included like prevailing wind direction and other pollution stress that these emissions raise further,” he told ideastream via email.

Whiting also said he would be interested to see how the list and rankings would change if only regular emissions - ones not caused by leaks - had been analyzed

Nearly 170,000 people nationwide live within one mile of a facility on the list, and 40 percent are people of color, Hispanic or Latino, according to the report.

“It definitely shows that perhaps these companies could be taking advantage of the communities surrounding them,” Bernhardt said. “If they were well-organized and well-funded and well-connected, [these communities] might have more sway over politicians and government decisions that allow these facilities to come in there in the first place.”

Another recommendation in the study is for the facilities to monitor for leaks in real time. Leaks accounted for 24 percent of the 100 companies’ emissions, according to the report.

“Leaks are notoriously difficult to detect and control, though they are often very preventable,” Bernhardt said.

The study also recommends better enforcement of air quality regulations by state and federal authorities. The study found 26 of the 100 facilities were in violation of the Clean Air Act of 2018.

“That’s important to know, so that the EPA and others can really focus on what can be done to reduce the pollution for these facilities,” Berndt said.

Ohio has eight facilities on the list, five in Northeast Ohio or along the lake. The report also identifies the southeast coast of Lake Erie as a “hot spot” of toxic emissions, with Bestcast Inc. in Willoughby and INEOS Pigments in Ashtabula also making the list of air pollution offenders. Neither company responded immediately to a request for comment.

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